Seminar explores how to cover state and federal governments from afar

Technology has made it possible to cover state and federal governments without having reporters based in state capitals or Washington, and there are plenty of opportunities to cover politicians at both levels, 20 journalists from seven states were told last weekend at "Bringing the Capitals to Your Community," a two-day conference in Somerset, Ky.

The conference, at the Center for Rural Development, was presented by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, the National Press Foundation and the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism of The Ohio State University. It was underwritten by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (with major support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and additional support from the Ford Foundation) and the Chicago Tribune Foundation.

The event was "groundbreaking exercise for both the presenters and the attendees," half of whom were from weekly newspapers, said Al Cross, director of the Institute. "Few programs like this are designed for journalists at the community level. We hope further such conferences will enrich and expand the news that community journalists bring to their readers, listeners and viewers."

NPF Programs Director Nolan Walters agreed: "I can't think of any other seminar that's had this focus or this target audience and I think it's a wonderful opportunity for everyone, not just for the journalists but also for the journalism educators who want to reach out to a new audience." Kiplinger Program Director Debra Jasper said, ""We had a terrific group of journalists in attendance. We all learned a great deal from each other, shared a tremendous amount of information and can't wait to do it again in 2006."

Friday's session focused on how small-market journalists can have a statewide impact by using on-line and state and federal resources to write about politics, the environment, education, and social issues. Jasper shared tips on the best ways to find compelling stories about some of the most vulnerable people in rural communities, including the mentally ill and mentally retarded, foster care kids, and medically fragile children.

Jasper and Cross encouraged the journalists to talk honestly about the issues they face as rural reporters. Several shared stories about the conflicts that arise in small towns where everyone knows each other, as well as how difficult it can be to convince U.S. senators and other federal officials to return phone calls.

Clint Brewer, editor of the Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat, told the journalists that they can cover statewide politics and legislative sessions even without reporters in the capital. He recommended they write at
least one issue story each week during the legislative session, and collect political tidbits into a briefs column. He also offered suggestions for covering local environmental stories.

Other speakers included: Chuck Wolfe, spokesman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Environment and Public Protection and a former Associated Press writer; Brad Hughes, a former reporter who is now communications director for the Kentucky School Boards Association; David Greer and John Whitlock, with the Kentucky Press Association’s unique state-capital news bureau; Al Smith, host of Kentucky Educational Television's "Comment on Kentucky," former weekly publisher in Kentucky and Tennessee, and former federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission; and Alan Lowe, with the University of Tennessee's Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.

Lowe wrapped up the day's session by engaging journalists in a thought-provoking discussion about whether they view themselves as watchdogs or attack dogs; how they cover controversial community issues; how they handle political endorsements, and how they deal with anonymous sources.

Initial responses by the attendees were overwhelmingly positive. "This course has inspired me to pay more attention to my newspaper's government coverage -- something I wasn't much interested in before," said Anne Adams, a reporter for The Recorder, a weekly newspaper in Monterey, Va. "I hope other journalists will take advantage of this kind of discourse."

Greg Johns of the Courier-News in Clinton, Tenn., said the conference was "well worth the time and trip." That was echoed by James Mulcahy, of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, Ky., who said it was"well worth the time invested." Several attendees said the conference was particularly useful in helping them navigate complicated Web sites featuring local, state and federal data. ""It had a great deal of relevant information that I think I'll be able to incorporate into my stories," said Kristin Taylor of the Murray (Ky.) Ledger and Times. "The information was terrific, providing numerous resources which cover a lot of ground," said Ronnie Ellis of the Glasgow (Ky.) Daily Times.

On Saturday, the National Press Foundation presented "Opening Washington's File Cabinet." The sessions offered resources for examining federal agencies, tracking businesses and covering natural disasters and public safety. James Carroll, Washington correspondent for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and Patricia Edmonds, former head of online news operations at National Public Radio and a former reporter for USA Today, explored the best ways to find data on everything from school-bus accidents to non-profit organizations. The Foundation also gave reporters a profile of government agencies in Washington as well as "A Guide to Statehouse Reporting," a book funded by the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors (since renamed CapitolBeat) and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation of the Society of Professional Journalists.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone 859-257-3744, Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: Sept. 13, 2005